Meridian Star

June 26, 2013

Supreme Court ruling alters Voting Rights Act

By Terri Ferguson Smith / tsmith@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court could fundamentally change the way elections are conducted in the South and some other areas.

    The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act cannot be enforced unless Congress comes up with a new way of determining which states and localities require federal monitoring of elections.

    The provision requires the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia get advance approval, or preclearance, before adopting any new voting laws or procedures.

    The justices said in 5-4 vote that the law Congress most recently renewed in 2006 relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society.

    It is now the duty of Congress to come up with a new way of deciding which areas should have U.S. Justice Department Scrutiny. The decision is getting mixed reviews from both sides of the aisle.

    Congress first passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 when efforts were still being made, in some parts of the country, to keep African-Americans from voting.

    The Supreme Court's ruling came in response to a challenge to the advance approval, or preclearance, requirement, which was brought by Shelby County, Ala., a Birmingham suburb.

    The lawsuit acknowledged that the measure's strength was appropriate and necessary to counteract decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting, despite the Fifteenth Amendment's guarantee of the vote for black Americans.

    But it asked whether there was any end in sight for a provision that intrudes on states' rights to conduct elections, an issue the court's conservative justices also explored at the argument in February.

    Local officials have also asked how long that intrusion would last. While pleased with the development, Donna Jill Johnson, Circuit Clerk of Lauderdale County, said she wishes it had gone further.

    "I was hoping we had gotten so far beyond this," Johnson said. "This many years have passed. I think we've shown, especially in the South, the progress that has been made. I think it needs to be all or none. That's the bottom line to me. I think it needs to be fair to all. If there is discrimination for whatever reason, race, gender, religion, whatever, I think it needs to be everybody involved and not the South targeted."

    Jeff Tate, chairman of the Lauderdale County Election Commission, agrees.

    "Local election officials have a better understanding than federal appointees have on how to conduct local elections. I believe that we have too much federal oversight and I believe that the encroachment on Mississippi elections by the federal government is too much."

    For example, Tate said, more than a year ago, the Meridian City Council adopted a new redistricting plan.

    "Due to multiple delays from the Department of Justice on approving the redistricting plan, there was a short amount of time between the approval and the city election," Tate said. "This caused confusion among several voters and candidates to which ward and precinct they lived in."

    Tate said he believes everyone wants fair and impartial elections and for every eligible voter to be registered.

    "What I've seen are officials actually bending over backwards to make sure that the perception is not even there, much less actually showing biases to one way or another, as far as voter registration and how we conduct the elections are concerned," Tate said.

    Bill Ready Sr., an attorney and civil rights proponent, said he was pleasantly surprised at the court's ruling. He said he had feared that they might go on and void it.

    "My personal opinion is that there are sections of this country, in addition to the South, that should be covered now," Ready said. "I just wish we had a better Congress to do it. No matter what happens, it means that the current generation of the American voter has to pay attention and to participate in elections. They have to pay attention to what is being done regarding voting districts and how they are laid out."

    In a statement to the media, U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) said the Supreme Court has made a step in the right direction.

    “The ‘Voting Rights Act’ had no provision for removing a jurisdiction from its preclearance requirements even after a state, such as Mississippi, has demonstrated years of compliance and dramatic improvements in its voting patterns. The Supreme Court today recognized this flaw," Harper said.

    Mississippi's Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said the court's ruling placed Mississippi on equal footing with every other state.

         "The Court’s decision removes requirements for Mississippi to travel through the expensive and time consuming federal application process for any change to state, county, or municipal voting law," Hosemann said. "Mississippi citizens have earned the right to determine our voting processes.  Our relationships and trust in each other have matured.  This chapter is closed."

    Hosemann said the process for implementation of Constitutional Voter Identification would begin immediately.

    "It will be conducted in accordance with the Constitutional Amendment adopted by the electorate, funded by the Legislature, and regulations as proposed by the Secretary of State," Hosemann said.

    That statement drew fire from Mississippi Democrats.

    "We didn't have to wait long before Mississippi Republicans began trying to push the discriminatory advantage given them by the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court," said Rickey Cole, Chairman, Mississippi Democratic Party. "Before the end of the day, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann proclaimed that Voter I.D. implementation would start today. Before the ink dried on the Supreme Court decision and before any reasonable time could be given to serious consideration of the impact of the decision, the Secretary of State has jumped at the chance to declare "This chapter is closed."

    Not so fast, Cole said.

    "Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act remains in place. The federal courts remain in place. Those of us in this state who care about Voting Rights remain in place. And we shall not sit idly by," Cole said.

    Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued a statement in response to the court's decision.

    “Today’s decision is a major setback to our democracy and will have a real and detrimental impact on the voting rights of Americans. No one should be fooled by the naïve fantasy that voting discrimination no longer exists," Henderson said. "Section Five is a vital tool to protect voters from losing their right to vote simply because of their race, and in 2006, on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis, Congress determined where that protection was still needed based on historical and ongoing discrimination. In today’s decision, a majority of the Court overruled the well-researched and well-considered judgment of Congress about where these protections were still needed."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.